Scott Morrison denounces China for offering Russia trade ‘lifeline’

Australia has vowed to provide nonlethal military equipment and medical supplies to Ukraine, as the prime minister accused China of offering Russia a trade “lifeline” after Thursday’s invasion.

The Ukrainian government is pleading for international support and tougher sanctions as it reports at least 137 people have died so far in the fighting, while the UN refugee agency estimates 100,000 have already fled their homes.

The US has warned that Russia appears intent to “encircle and threaten” the capital Kyiv, where explosions were heard in the early hours of Friday. Russian forces are said to have captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Scott Morrison said on Friday the Australian government was “extremely concerned at the terrible violence that we have seen inflicted on the people of Ukraine by Russia” in its “unwarranted, unprovoked” invasion.

“I want to confirm that we have been working with Nato to ensure that we can provide nonlethal military equipment and medical supplies to support the people of Ukraine,” the prime minister told reporters in Adelaide.

He said Australia was “a long way from Ukraine” and the most effective way to provide that support was “through that Nato channel”.

Morrison said he could not go into much detail about the support but “you can rest assured that we are working very closely with those partners and allies to support them in their time of need”.

He said the Australian government would continue to work with its close allies and partners to impose “a rolling wave of sanctions”, including on oligarchs whose economic weight was of strategic significance to Moscow.

The Australian sanctions would also be extended to cover “key Belarusian individuals and entities complicit in the aggression”.

Morrison said the coordinated action was intended to “demonstrate very forcefully that we are all working together to shut Russia out as a result of their violence and their unlawful actions”.

But Morrison said he was “particularly concerned” by the lack of a strong response from China. He cited a report that China was fully opening up to Russian wheat exports, which had previously been subject to health-related restrictions.

The South China Morning Post reported that the announcement was made public hours after the Russian invasion began on Thursday, but was the result of a package of deals made when Vladimir Putin visited Beijing at the beginning of February.

Morrison said it was “inexplicable” and “completely unacceptable” for the Chinese government to ease trade restrictions on Russia at a time when other countries were ratcheting up sanctions for the invasion.

“You don’t go and throw a lifeline to Russia in the middle of a period when they’re invading another country,” he said.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, also criticised China for lifting the trade restrictions with Russia.

“It’s doing the opposite of what it should be doing,” Albanese told reporters in Tasmania.

“This is a unilateral decision by Vladimir Putin to be the aggressor against a sovereign state with tragic consequences – and that’s why all countries should condemn it.”

Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy, but China’s longstanding and repeated position is that “all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected”.

It cites that position to urge other countries not to speak up about Taiwan, which is a self-governed democracy of 24 million people but which Beijing regards as its breakaway territory that will one day be “reunited” with the mainland.

At a daily press conference in Beijing on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, declined to use the word “invasion” in relation to Russia’s actions.

Hua said the situation in Ukraine had “a complicated historical background and context” and urged “all sides to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control”.

“The current state of affairs is not what we would hope to see,” she said.

Hua said it was “quite offensive” to ask whether China’s Xi Jinping had given Putin his blessing to attack Ukraine, insisting that Russia “makes its foreign policy decisions independently” and China was not a direct party to the conflict.

Putin and Xi agreed to formalise closer ties between Russia and China at the beginning of the Beijing Winter Olympics three weeks ago, described it at the time as a “no limits” friendship.

The Putin-Xi agreement did not mention “Ukraine” – but it included a passage of support for Putin’s position against the enlargement of Nato.

China also said at the time it was “sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”.

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, speculated that Beijing was “probably watching to see what the world reaction is so that they can make their own calculations down the track in relation to Taiwan”.

The Russian embassy in Canberra defended the “special military operation”, which it said was intended to “demilitarise” Ukraine by targeting military infrastructure, air defence facilities and military airfields.

“There is no objective to occupy Ukraine,” the embassy said in a statement on Friday.

“The decision to conduct the operation is not to hurt the interests of Ukraine or the Ukrainian people, but rather to defend our country from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and have been trying to use it against Russia and our people.”

Amid ongoing diplomatic tensions between China and Australia, Morrison played down the significance of a gesture from the new Chinese ambassador, Xiao Qian, who said on Thursday the two countries should “meet each other halfway” and “look into the future”.

Morrison said diplomatic channels were not fully open because China had blocked meetings with Australian ministers and political leaders.

The prime minister said while he would be happy to talk, the 14 points on the list of grievances issued by the Chinese embassy in 2020 were “not for negotiating”.

“In terms of meeting halfway, there are 14 points. I don’t agree with changing any of them,” he said.